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Netanyahu: COVID curbs almost over

Israel has almost emerged from its coronavirus closures, announced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as many venues reopened under an exit plan fueled by the nation’s fast-paced vaccination campaign.

“Restaurants are coming back to life,” Netanyahu said after he and Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion clinked mugs and ate pastries together at an outside park café on Sunday.

“We still have to watch ourselves, we have to wear masks, keep distances that people require, social distances – but we’re coming out of it, and there’s not much more,” he told Reuters.

53% of Israelis having received at least one dose of the Pfizer Inc vaccine, according to the Health Ministry.

Some leisure venues have limited entry to only those able to prove COVID immunity with a so-called “Green Pass” issued by the Health Ministry, in a measure that officials hope will persuade reluctant citizens to step up for their free inoculations. Those entitled to the Green Pass include participants in clinical trials for the nation’s own BriLife vaccine developed at the Israel Institute for Biological Research.

The Prime Minister’s Office was joined by the Ministries of Health and Transportation in releasing a joint statement Saturday night announcing Cabinet approval of the third phase of the lifting of restrictions, that went into effect yesterday.

Green Pass holders are allowed to be seated indoors at restaurants, which must still limit occupancy to 75%; while anyone is permitted to eat in outside areas. Neither section can surpass 100 people, and must contain tables situated at least 2 meters apart. In bars, at least one stool must be left between any patrons who do not co-reside, and tables must also be placed at least 2 meters apart.

General gatherings are still limited to 20 people in a closed structure and 50 in an open area. Infants under the age of one year old may be brought into places that operate according to the Green Pass model. Patrons’ temperatures will no longer be checked prior to entry of either public or commercial places.

All restrictions on passengers traveling in private vehicles have been cancelled.

Entry to event halls or gardens cannot exceed 50% occupancy or a total of 300 people. While 95% of attendees mush hold green passes, another 5% will be “able to enter upon presentation of negative test results,” said the government statement, obligating “hall operators” to find a “method” to ensure adherence to those limits.

Hotel dining rooms may be reopened up to 50% occupancy, with no more than 300 people.

Up to 500 people are allowed to be seated in a closed space and 750 in open areas at cultural and sporting events, or conferences. In arenas or stadiums with over 10,000 seats, up to 1,000 people are allowed entrance to enclosed spaces, with 1,500 in open areas. Tickets will be available only through advanced sale, and participants must remain or stand alongside their marked seats. No events or appearances can be held without pre-assigned seating arrangements. Dancing and onsite eating remain forbidden, as do the sales of food and beverages, and distance must be maintained at all events.

Worshippers with Green Passes may attend houses of prayer up to 50% occupancy according to the number of permanent seats, or the equivalent of one person per 7 square meters in structures without permanent seats; with no more than 500 people in any case. Services for those lacking Green Passes are limited to 20 indoors and 50 outside.

All tourist attractions may open to Green Pass holders, and some attractions that have received prior approval by the Health Ministry Director General will be to open to those without it.

Israeli schoolchildren in grades 7-10 who reside in green, yellow and borderline orange areas (“whose ranking is no more than 7 and in which at least 70% of people over 50 have been vaccinated,” according to the statement) were permitted to return to class. Pupils in grades 1-6 and 11-12 will continue in accordance with a plan that went into operation last week.

Institutions of higher learning and professional instruction, and post-secondary religious institutions were allowed to reopen to Green Pass holders only, on condition that the facilities maintain distance learning for unvaccinated students. Attendance is limited to no more than 300 or 75% occupancy, with a 4 meter minimum distance between instructors and students.

Other education-related regulations include the permitted operation of pre-secondary boarding schools on open or closed tracks similar to secondary boarding schools; participation in courses and vocational training for adults has been raised from 10 to 20; day trips are possible in structures and not just in open areas; and extra-curricular activities for children and youth movements may operate in permanent groups of up to 50 people in an open area in green, yellow and borderline orange communities.

Israeli citizens caught abroad during national lockdown will now be able to return home under limited circumstances. Only a maximum 1,000 people were able to return home yesterday in order to allow for the gradual opening, rising to 3,000 today and the foreseeable future subject to further assessment by the Transportation Ministry. Entry quotas will not apply to new immigrants whose absorption cannot be delayed, essential foreign workers and professional athletes.

Entry into Israel via land crossings is as follows: The Jordan River crossing shall operate up to twice a week. The Taba crossing will open once for those entering from Egypt, who were there until Wednesday, 3 February 2021. Holders of either Green Passes or recovery certificates will be able to exit Israel freely, with the exception of the Taba crossing, which will remain closed other than the aforementioned exception.

The Israel Police will now monitor incoming travelers subject to quarantine, which may not be permitted at home with no further compulsion to be housed at government-designated hotels.

As air traffic gradually resumes, flights to the popular destinations of New York, Frankfurt, Paris, London, Kiev, Toronto and Hong Kong will be increased. Flight operators are, however, obliged to provide passenger lists to the Transportation Ministry for epidemiological investigation upon demand. Failure to comply with this requirement would incur fines of up to ₪ 5,000 shekel.

All of the regulations detailed above are set to remain in effect until Saturday, 20 March 2021, other than the educational limits that will remain valid until Saturday, 3 April 2021. Violators of any of the curbs will face up to ₪ 5,000 shekel fines.

Coronavirus Cabinet Chief Nachman Ash is warning, however, that the public might not observe the remaining curbs.

“We are worried by the rise in morbidity in recent days, and the possibility of reverse measures certainly exists,” Ash told the local 103 FM radio channel.

Israel emerged from its third lockdown last month, and the government has pledged there will not be a fourth. The country became a world leader with its fast vaccine roll-out, as part of the pandemic policies Netanyahu is hoping will translate into a victorious re-election in the upcoming 23 March ballot.

But when asked if a spike in the infection rate could in fact include another nationwide lockdown, Israel’s national pandemic response coordinator replied, “We may have to decide to do this before the election, certainly.”

While the latest public opinion surveys reflect a majority of votes going to Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, the longest-serving Premier in Israel’s history encountered significant difficulty in cobbling a ruling coalition over the last 3 elections; all of which were held over the past 2 years during a period marked by political turmoil and divisiveness.